By MARTIN ZEILIG In her latest novel for young adults, Winnipeg author Harriet Zaidman reinforces the role of ice hockey as being, in her words, “synonymous with Canada.”
No doubt about it: Hockey is, indeed, a defining cultural entity within our country.
“Canadian boys have chased the dream of making it in the NHL since the league began in 1917,” Zaidman, a retired teacher/librarian and book reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press, said during a recent interview with The Jewish Post & News.
That’s Dale Melnyk’s hope in “Second Chances”, published this year by Red DeerPress.
After the 14-year-old’s stellar defence of the goal crease for the Perth Community Centre team in the 1954-55 season, he thinks his objective to follow fellow Winnipegger Terry Sawchuk into professional hockey might become a reality.
But Dale’s life has become complicated.
His mother has died unexpectedly, leaving his family in tatters; his father decides that Dale has to give up hockey to help care for his little brother and do chores.
“His best friend, Paul, is the backup goalie on their team,” Zaidman said during the interview.
“He keeps the puck out using the new butterfly method, the same as Detroit backup Glenn Hall, while Dale is a stand-up goalie like Sawchuk, throwing his body left and right to defend.”
But Paul has just announced he will be moving to his grandparents’ house. He has to have a different address to qualify for the starter position on the Northwood Community Centre team.
“Dale feels intensely achy and exhausted,” the author writes.
“This unwelcome news makes him realize he’s missed the clues that Paul had the same aspirations as he does.”
The aches turn into a full-blown attack of the polio virus and Dale ends up paralyzed in an iron lung.
His first thought is about hockey. It’s April now. Can he recover in time to make the tryouts in November?
Can he overcome his dad’s edict? Can sheer will get Dale back on top of the world? What does the future hold if he can’t?
Dale’s hero is the famed Terry Sawchuk, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant tinsmith, who lived across the Red River, in circumstances similar to Dale’s family.
“Despite an unbelievable number of serious injuries, which today would be intolerable, Sawchuk was the best goalie in the NHL, something young readers should know about,” Zaidman said.
“An ordinary kid, from the humblest background, could make it big, if he had the talent and drive. This is part of Manitoba’s hockey history. It should be remembered and honoured.”
The book also highlights the showdown between Montreal and Detroit in the last game of the Stanley Cup series in 1955. The author introduces famous players whose names are part of NHL lore: Bernie Geoffrion, Alex Delvecchio, Floyd Curry, Marcel Pronovost and Gordie Howe.
She also writes about the controversy surrounding the suspension of Maurice Richard for the last part of the season and the playoffs.
“I wanted to recreate the tension fans felt in imagining the play as it was meticulously described by broadcaster Foster Hewitt over the radio,” said Zaidman, who lives in Garden City with her husband, Cecil Rosner, a retired CBC Television producer.
“I wanted to highlight local hockey too with mention of community centres that existed at that time – Perth in West Kildonan and Northwood in the North End of Winnipeg.
“Hockey tryouts and games didn’t start until November because youth hockey was played on outdoor rinks, which could not be flooded until the water was cold enough to freeze solid.”
It was a volunteer effort, both adults and kids getting the rink ready for the season, she writes.
“The coaches’ work included hanging out the uniforms to get rid of the mothball smell,” Zaidman said.
“Spectators had to stand out in the cold to watch games; frozen noses and toes were the norm. Equipment was substandard, repaired and reused year after year, but the kids played hard.”
The competition was fierce, as the rivalry between the teams and between Dale and his friend Paul showed.
One of the characters included in this novel is Vince Leah (“Uncle Vince”), who was a sportswriter and then editor for The Winnipeg Tribune newspaper. Leah was an important figure in local sports.
“He was a typical North Ender from modest circumstances,” the author said.
“He also overcame polio, just like the novel’s young main character. Leah’s character helps give Dale the chance to play hockey again, as well as other ways of staying involved in sports by developing his writing skills for a potential future career as a sports reporter.”
Another historical character in the novel is Dr. Percy Barsky, who developed polio at age 21.
His experience as a patient motivated him to become a pediatrician and help others.
“Many Winnipeg families recall the attention and kindness he gave children from the 1950s until his death in 1989,” Zaidman writes in the Acknowledgments section.
This young novel teaches today’s children about the history of hockey in Winnipeg and Canada.
It shows how they can develop a greater appreciation for the work it took to bring hockey “to the advanced state it is today.”
“I also wanted to write about how the terrible virus changed children’s hopes and dreams, and how science saved future generations from fear, disability, and death,” she writes in the novel’s concluding chapter, Interview with Harriet Zaidman.
“Learning from history— the reason I write.”
by Harriet Zaidman
(Red Deer Press 287 pg $14.95)